Sepilok and Kinabatangan River

To round out my stay in Borneo, I visited Sepilok and the Kinabatangan River. I went to several animal rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries in Sepilok, which was about a 45-minute drive from Sandakan.

I heard that the Labuk Bay Sanctuary allowed visitors to see proboscis monkeys up close. Proboscis monkeys have prominent noses and live in two types of groups. A “harem” group (a cringe-worthy name) consists of a dominant male, a group of females, and their offspring. A “bachelor” group consists of single males who have reached mating age. Males from a bachelor group may try to win over wives from a harem group.

When I visited Labuk Bay, I learned that a palm oil plantation owner built the sanctuary. In the 1990s, the owner was responsible for destroying hundreds of acres of mangroves, which served as the habitat for proboscis monkeys. On the drive from my hostel to the sanctuary, palms stretched as far as I could see. The owner claims to have regretted his actions and built the sanctuary to try to reverse the harm he created.

The sanctuary didn’t feel like a genuine conservation or rehabilitation effort. Instead, it felt like a business catered toward giving visitors Instagram-worthy moments. I’ll show a couple of photos from the sanctuary for honesty’s sake, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending the sanctuary to others.

Labuk Bay has a feeding for the proboscis monkeys in the morning and another in the afternoon. Silvered leaf monkeys wander around the viewing platform where the morning feeding occurs. The monkeys weren’t afraid of humans, and other guests invited the monkeys to climb on them and cuddle. I was wary of touching the monkeys, and I thought the extensive contact with humans might have been harmful. It didn’t seem like the center was helping to ensure the monkeys could survive on their own.

labuk bay

Many proboscis monkeys came to the viewing platforms for both feedings. Although I didn’t like the sanctuary’s focus on profit rather than conservation, the proboscis monkeys were still fascinating to watch.

labuk bay

A male proboscis monkey

I didn’t voice my concerns about Labuk Bay to the staff. (You can call me out for having a weak backbone.) Sepilok is not an affluent area, and Labuk Bay and the palm oil plantation provide jobs to locals. As a privileged foreigner who didn’t know much about the local economy or best conservation practices, I wasn’t in a position to lecture anyone. Plus, I had made the decision to visit the sanctuary in the first place. It seemed hypocritical to try to deprive the staff of their livelihood.

That said, if your goal is to get good photos of proboscis and silvered leaf monkeys, you’ll get them at Labuk Bay. Obviously, each traveler can make his or her own decision on whether to visit.


The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center provided a more positive wildlife experience. Like Labuk Bay, the center has a morning and afternoon feeding. A ticket grants you access to both feedings, although you have to leave the center between feedings. All visitors must disinfect their hands before entering for the orangutans’ safety. The center made clear its priority was to reintegrate orphaned and injured orangutans into the wild.

As I was waiting for the orangutans to arrive for the morning feeding, I realized that the memory card in my digital camera wasn’t working properly. I became frustrated as I fiddled around with the memory card. After a few minutes, I decided to get over myself, take some photos with my phone, and just enjoy the experience.

The viewing platform was crowded, and everyone whispered in excitement when the first orangutan appeared.

sepilok orangutan

An orangutan scurries away with his pick of the food, while macaques try to swoop in on the action.

Four orangutans came to the feeding. All of them kept their visits brief and swiftly disappeared into the trees. Visitors are free to walk around the center for about an hour and a half after the morning feeding, so I started heading to the nursery. On the way, I saw an orangutan hanging out in the trees. The orangutan was a total flirt, alternating between staring coyly at bystanders and climbing further up the trees.

sepilok orangutan

Oh hai.

The nursery was the highlight of the sanctuary. Hilarious profiles of each of the orangutans hung on the walls. For instance, one profile said an orangutan named Ceria could “look evil when he close[d] his eyelids” and “like[d] attractive-looking ladies.”

sepilok orangutan

Ceria, you’re my favorite.

Watching the orangutans play in the nursery was so entertaining. They loved to somersault, wrestle, and tease each other. The nursery was the highlight of my visit to the center.

sepilok orangutans

Orangutans tormenting each other


Instead of going to the afternoon feeding at the orangutan center, I visited the Sun Bear Conservation Center, which was next door. Sun bears are relatively small and predominantly live in Southeast Asia. The bears were active when I visited, sniffing and roaming for food.

sun bear

Ah, so cute. I die.

One bear stood up when a ranger approached with corn and sweet potatoes.

sun bear

Macaques scrambled around the visitors’ platforms as they tried to steal food. A couple of macaques proudly enjoyed their loot.

sun bear sepilok

After seeing aggressive macaques in Thailand and hearing stories of other travelers being bitten, I kept my distance from them. A staff member advised us to avoid eye contact with them.

sun bear sepilok

No eye contact!

As I was walking on the visitors’ platform, I nearly stumbled into an orangutan hanging out on a railing. I was startled, but it couldn’t have cared less about me.

sepilok orangutan

The orangutans from the rehabilitation center are free to roam, so they regularly visit the sun bear center. I saw three orangutans at the sun bear center and was able to see them at a closer range than at the orangutan center.

sepilok orangutan

The orangutan rehabilitation center and the sun bear conservation center were absolutely worthwhile. It was great that they focused on providing information about the animals and conservation efforts.


I also visited the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok. I don’t know much about flora and have never cared much for plants and flowers, but I do appreciate that rainforests are enormously important. An exhibit on Bornean wildlife was especially informative. The center contained a canopy walk that allowed visitors to walk among the trees.

rainforest discovery center


I went on a two-day, one-night tour of the Kinabatangan River as my last activity in Borneo. The river is home to pygmy elephants, crocodiles, orangutans, and other wildlife. It’s very rare for visitors to spot pygmy elephants and orangutans, but crocodiles are more common.

My tour included two cruises: one in the late afternoon and another in the morning. Unfortunately, it poured during the afternoon cruise, so we didn’t see the rarer animals. We did spot proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf monkeys, and macaques. The animals were far away, so I couldn’t take great photos. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the monkeys in their natural habitat.

kinabatangan

Bornean version of Where’s Waldo? Can you spot the proboscis monkey? (Hint: look for an orange-ish blob.)

The rain reduced to an occasional drizzle for our cruise the next morning. We saw more proboscis monkeys and macaques and caught the end of the sunrise.

kinabatangan


I apologize if my posts on Borneo sound preachy and/or long-winded. I’m still processing my visit, and I haven’t found an articulate way to voice my thoughts. Overall, I loved most of my experience in Borneo, but I was uncomfortable with a couple of wildlife encounters (most notably Turtle Island and Labuk Bay). It was also upsetting to see so many palm oil plantations in Borneo. However, a number of organizations are valiantly attempting to save and maintain the wildlife in Borneo. I definitely should have been more thorough in researching companies and organizations that focused on conservation, but hopefully others can do a better job than I did.

Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan

I spent about a week and a half in Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo. My stay in Borneo started in Kota Kinabalu, or “KK,” the capital city of Sabah. Kota Kinabalu isn’t a pretty city, but it was perfectly safe. A couple of malls and plenty of food options were within walking distance of my hostel. My favorite restaurant was Kedai Kopi Yee Fung, which sold laksa, a slightly sour noodle soup with coconut milk. Since I can’t resist noodles, I automatically loved this dish.

laksa

Laksa with iced tea


As the proud new owner of an open water certificate, I did three fun dives with Downbelow. Downbelow’s dive shop was on Manukan Island, which was a ten-minute boat ride from KK. I didn’t bring a camera since I figured I’d be busy focusing on my breathing and staying buoyant. This was a good call as I was still pretty flail-y (sure, I can invent words) on our first dive. Once I got my bearings, I was able to admire the reefs and fish. We saw an adorable puffer fish, a huge school of barracuda, and a few rays. I met another traveler who didn’t care for the diving around KK, but I enjoyed it. What can I say? I’m an easily impressed novice.

Downbelow was top-notch. The fun dives with Downbelow weren’t as cheap as those on the Perhentian Islands, but their gear was spotless and well maintained. Their shop on Manukan Island contained a pool, which we were free to use during breaks between dives. Two cats – a mother and her daughter – acted as the mascots for the shop. I usually avoid cats since I’m allergic to them, but these two cats were playful and social. If all cats were like them, I could be persuaded to become a cat person.


On another day, I went on a whitewater rafting trip with Riverbug. I’d been rafting a couple of times before, so I was eager to do it in Borneo. The rafting was on the Padas River, which contains Class III and IV rapids. Riverbug arranged the transport from KK to the rafting site, which consisted of a two-hour van ride and a two-hour train ride.

Once I arrived at the Padas River, I joined a delightful Malaysian family on our raft. The first 45 minutes of the rafting were uneventful, and we merrily bounced along the rapids.

riverbug rafting

Photo credit: Riverbug

We also jumped into the river to do some “body rafting.” Our guides told us to keep our feet up and ahead of us while body rafting, which was the same position we needed to take if we fell off the raft.

After taking a short break, we returned to the river for the second half, where the rapids were noticeably rougher. As we rowed through our first rapid, four members of our crew fell off the raft. I toppled toward the center of the raft but stayed on board. Our guides safely steered the raft and picked up each fallen crew member. Our drenched comrades were great sports and had a blast while floating in the river.

riverbug rafting

Photo credit: Riverbug

We had a couple of other close calls, but everyone survived the rest of the rafting. Of course, we had to take a celebratory photo.

riverbug rafting

Photo credit: Riverbug


I visited KK twice. I spent a few days in KK at the beginning of my stay in Borneo and spent another night there before flying back to Kuala Lumpur. I have to give a shoutout to both of the hostels I stayed in.

I stayed at B&B@21 for the majority of my time in KK. The staff was very helpful and friendly. It was easy to pass the time by chatting with them in the common area. They even hung out with us after hours, entertaining us with card games and karaoke. If I worked at a hostel, I probably would want to peace out ASAP to escape from needy guests, so this really made an impression. The hostel was quiet overall, but it was easy to find other travelers to hang out with.

I stayed at Faloe Hostel for one night at the end of my stay in Borneo, which was one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in so far. Sarah and Ryan, the owners, were so kind and promptly answered my emails when I had a couple of questions before arriving at the hostel. My room and the common area were pristine and modern. I had to leave the hostel at 3:30 AM to catch my flight to KL, and Sarah and Ryan made sure breakfast was available for me in the kitchen.

All these factors would have been enough to put Faloe toward the top of my ranking of hostels, but here was the biggest selling point: the common area contained a washer and dryer, which were free(!!!) for guests to use. In New York, I thought an in-unit washer and dryer was the biggest and hardest-to-attain luxury. Laundry has continued to be a major deal during my travels in southeast Asia, considering my limited wardrobe and constant sweatiness. Getting fresh laundry back is one of my favorite moments while traveling (showering is the other). I don’t care how weird this is: I will rhapsodize about hostels with free laundry.


After KK, I took a bus to Sandakan, a city in northeastern Sabah. One of the staff members at B&B@21 didn’t think it was worth staying in Sandakan and recommended nearby Sepilok instead. Sepilok is home to a number of wildlife attractions, including an orangutan rehabilitation center and sun bear conservation center. I did follow the staff member’s advice and stayed in Sepilok later. I admit that Sandakan wasn’t the most appealing city, but I had a couple of reasons for staying there.

The first reason was the Sandakan Memorial Park, which commemorates the WWII POWs who were forced to march 150 miles from Sandakan to the city of Ranau. More than 2,000 Australian and British POWs perished during these death marches. Only six POWs survived. The park contained an exhibit that detailed the POWs’ living conditions in Sandakan and the brutal nature of the marches. WWII history isn’t my forte, so the memorial was eye-opening.

sandakan memorial

Sandakan Memorial Park


Selingan, or “Turtle Island,” was the other reason why I wanted to visit Sandakan. Turtles lay eggs on the island year-round. A limited number of tourists are permitted to stay on the island each night to watch the nesting process. Sandakan serves as the main transport hub to Turtle Island, which is about an hour away from the city.

A number of companies advertise tours to Turtle Island, but all tours are ultimately booked through a Sandakan-based company called Crystal Quest. I wanted to try to book with Crystal Quest directly to avoid the jacked-up pricing by third parties. Based on my Internet searches, Crystal Quest didn’t seem to have a reliable phone number or email address, so I went straight to their office on my first morning in Sandakan. Even though it was the high season in Borneo, there was an opening for the following day. I paid 504.60 MYR (approximately $118), which covered accommodation for one night, food (lunch, dinner, and breakfast), entrance fees, and a photography fee. Third-party companies offer this tour for as much as double the price.

The following morning was rainy. I joined about 30 other guests on the boat ride to Turtle Island. Upon arrival, we checked into our rooms and had lunch. We were free to swim until 5:00 PM and walk around the island until 6:00 PM. On clear days, snorkeling is a popular activity, and gear is available for rent. Unfortunately, the rain continued for the rest of the day. A few determined guests snorkeled in the rain, but I decided to stick to land and walk around the island.

turtle island

View from Turtle Island

To allow turtles to remain undisturbed as they find nesting spots, guests are not allowed to walk on the beach after 6:00 PM. There were several other rules we had to follow:

  • We were permitted to observe one turtle lay her eggs. A ranger would signal us when it was time to enter and leave the beach to minimize distractions for other turtles.
  • We were allowed to watch rangers release one group of hatchlings into the ocean.
  • We were forbidden from using flash photography or shining flashlights during nesting and release. Mother turtles and hatchlings are very sensitive to light.
  • After we were done watching the nesting and release, we had to return to our rooms and remain there until the next morning.

At 7:00 PM, we watched a movie about turtles’ life cycles and conservation efforts on Turtle Island. At 7:30 PM, we had dinner and waited until we got the signal from a ranger to head to the beach. We got the signal at around 8:45 PM and dashed outside. We saw a turtle laying eggs, with a spotlight focused on the nest. Once the mother was finished, the ranger informed us that she laid 76 eggs.

The ranger collected the eggs and then shone a light on the mother for photos. At the time, I was caught up in the excitement and snapped away with my camera. When I reflected on this later in the night, after the buzz had died down, I felt guilty. It felt wrong to disturb the mother for a photo opp, especially since we had been told about how sensitive mother turtles are to light. When I sent photos to my dad, he called me out on disrupting the mother during the stressful nesting process. As always, Dr. Choo was right.

For the sake of honesty, I’ll show one photo I took of the mother.

turtle island

This photo reeks of guilt.

We also watched a ranger release a group of 72 hatchlings into the ocean. The ranger shone a light on the crate that the hatchlings were in for photos. Again, I later felt guilty about taking advantage of this photo opp.

turtle island

More guilt

After hatchlings scurried into the water, we retired to our rooms. We took a boat back to Sandakan the following morning to leave the island free for the next group of visitors.

I’m not a wildlife expert, so I’m not qualified to provide conservation tips. I’m sure visitors are a major source of funds for Turtle Island, so it’s tricky to balance guests’ interests with conservation efforts. It does seem like Turtle Island does its best to minimize disturbances to the turtles, but I still feel uncomfortable about my visit. None of the other guests I spoke to expressed reservations, so I don’t know if my guilt is unfounded or if my doubts have some basis. I’m not sure if there would be value in a no-photography policy: this could allow guests to observe the nesting and release processes, but lights wouldn’t be needed for photos.

I’m in no position to judge other travelers who might want to visit and take photos on Turtle Island. If you’re interested in visiting, it’s unquestionably a great way to get close to a mother turtle and hatchlings. Accommodations and food are basic, but you’re not paying for glamorous digs; you’re paying for the privilege of observing an amazing process.


More animals – and mixed feelings – will be featured in my next post on Borneo. Coming soon.

Perhentian Islands

I stayed on the Perhentian Islands in the northeast of the Malaysian peninsula to get a scuba diving certificate. To get there, I took a seven-hour bus ride from Penang to a city named Kota Bharu and then a one-hour taxi ride to Kuala Besut, the closest mainland port to the islands. I spent one night in Kuala Besut since I arrived there after the last boat to the Perhentians had left. While the hosts at my guesthouse were very kind, there isn’t much to do in Kuala Besut. The Perhentians are the real attraction.

The diving around the Perhentians is known for being relatively inexpensive. The water was calm and warm, which made it a good location to learn how to dive. I did a three-day PADI open water course with Anti Gravity Divers. Storm, a 22-year-old Malaysian, was the instructor for me and a Jordanian who had lived in Malaysia for a few years before returning to the Middle East.

In addition to having the coolest name, Storm was so relaxed and mature. He patiently explained theory and didn’t get ruffled when we – or I, to be more accurate – fumbled through drills. With Storm’s guidance, we miraculously passed our open water exam. (Let’s be honest again here: it was a miracle I passed. I had no doubts about my course buddy.)

After finishing the course, I did a couple of recreational dives with my course buddy, his girlfriend, and Storm. My course buddy’s girlfriend and Storm were experienced divers who could serenely glide near reefs and fish without incident. In contrast, I was a lot jerkier and had to paddle my hands to scuttle away from reefs. My diving “skills” clearly needed more work. Since I was still trying to master buoyancy, I didn’t take photos, but we saw clownfish (forever known as “Nemos”), a small school of shrimpfish that floated vertically, and an adorable moray eel.


The Perhentians consist of two main islands. Perhentian Besar, the larger one, has a reputation for catering toward families. Perhentian Kecil, the smaller island, is more of a backpacker haven. I stayed on Perhentian Kecil, which has two main beaches. Long Beach is larger and has more of a party scene, while Coral Bay is smaller and quieter. Anti Gravity was in Coral Bay, so I stayed in a room right across from the shop.

Coral Bay was a tranquil retreat after my diving lessons. I was exhausted after diving but remembered to take one shot of the bay.

perhentians

I visited Long Beach one morning and preferred Coral Bay. Long Beach was more crowded, and there were a number of trash bags on the beach when I visited. Since I was drained from diving, I didn’t partake in the nightlife on Long Beach, but friends who did had a good time.

perhentians

Sorry, Long Beach. Coral Bay’s got you beat.


As for non-diving entertainment, Ombak Resort on Coral Bay played two movies every night. Admission was free as long as you bought a drink or food item. The drinks and food were expensive, but I couldn’t complain when I was being given free entertainment. I went to the Ombak movie night twice. On the first night, I happened to sit next to a receptionist who worked at the resort, so I got to meet and hang out with a few other staff members.

I’m no movie critic (I haven’t even seen any Star Wars movies), but below are my one- and two-sentence reviews of the movies I saw:

  • Assassin’s Creed: reminded me a lot of The Da Vinci Code, but I was surprised that I actually got into the movie.
  • Me Before You: not sure if I agreed with how the movie handled the issue of living with physical handicaps, but the chemistry between Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin was off the charts.
  • The Smurfs: meh. I wasn’t expecting an Oscar-worthy story, but I was unimpressed.
  • If I Stay: more meh. The story was pretty heavy, but I couldn’t get myself to care about any of the characters.

Below are a few more notes about the Perhentians:

  • Accommodations on the islands are limited, and the cost is expensive for what you get. I stayed in a private room on Coral Bay, which cost 40 MYR (about $9.50) per night. The room had a fan but no air conditioning. The bed had a mosquito net with a few holes, and the bathroom was pretty bleak. The room was fine for a few nights, but you shouldn’t expect luxury digs on the islands.
  • There are no ATMs on the islands, so you have to make sure you bring enough cash to cover your stay. It’s a good thing I didn’t go out on Long Beach because I ran out of cash on my last night. I thought I had tracked how much cash I had, but I embarrassingly didn’t have enough to pay for my accommodation. The guesthouse owner was incredibly gracious and understanding, and Anti Gravity let me send them an online payment, which they transferred to the owner. A million thanks to the guesthouse owner and Anti Gravity.
  • Coral Bay and Long Beach are on opposite sides of Perhentian Kecil. A path connects the two beaches, and a 10-minute walk will get you from one side to the other. The path isn’t lit at night, which can be a problem if you’re returning to Coral Bay after a night on Long Beach. Thefts have occurred. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking down the path alone at night.
  • Cellular service was spotty on the islands, so bring a good book for entertainment.

Penang

Penang is a state in northwestern Malaysia that’s famous for its food. I spent three nights in the capital of Georgetown.

A good portion of my days was devoted to hunting for street art, which is spread throughout Georgetown. I had a map that identified the more famous works but spotted plenty of others that weren’t on the map. Sometimes I’d see people who seemed to be gathering around nothing noteworthy. It was only when I turned around or looked up that I realized they were taking photos of street art.

georgetown street art

georgetown street art

georgetown street art

Many of the works incorporated a three-dimensional element.

georgetown street art

georgetown street art

georgetown street art

A number of works provided historical facts about streets and other locations in Georgetown.

georgetown street art

In case the text is difficult to read, this work explains why a lane in Georgetown is also known as “Chicken Alley.”


I visited the Tropical Spice Garden one afternoon, which was an hourlong bus ride away from the center of Georgetown. The staff sprayed each guest with citronella, which served as natural insect repellent. The admission fee included an audio guide that provided a wealth of information about the spices in the garden.

tropical spice garden

My favorite feature of the garden was a large wooden swing. The garden wasn’t crowded, so I spent a few minutes enjoying the breeze in peace.

tropical spice garden

A small, picturesque beach was across from the spice garden. Only a couple of people were laying out on the beach.

batu feringghi

batu feringghi


On another afternoon, I visited Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. The incline of the hill on which the temple sat magnified the size of the complex. Part of the temple was under construction, but it was still a workout to climb the hill.

kek lok si

A tortoise pond was at the bottom of the complex, which was fun to watch.

kek lok si


The food in Georgetown lived up to the hype. On my first night, my roommates and I tried lok lok, which consisted of a selection of food items on skewers. We were free to take any skewers we liked and place them into pots of boiling water. The lok lok cart owner advised us how long we should keep each skewer in the water. You can dip the cooked food in a spicy dipping sauce before eating. The cost depends on the type of skewers you choose; I think the most expensive item was 2 MYR (about 50 cents). It was a cheap and tasty way to try an assortment of items.

I craved noodles in Georgetown and visited Yeap Noodles every day of my stay. I ordered the same thing each time: dry pork noodles and fried wontons. I get that variety is supposedly the spice of life, but once I find something I like, I’m perfectly content to eat it every day.

If you’re a backpacker, you’ll probably end up having drinks at a hostel called Tipsy Tiger. I didn’t stay there, but my roommates and I visited one night. As expected for a party hostel, the crowd was largely 18- to 24-year-olds, but we still had fun starting the night there. Tipsy Tiger is close to Love Lane, which is a popular spot to go out due to its high concentration of bars. Lebuh Chulia is a nearby street that also houses plenty of bars and restaurants.


A German traveler recommended that I visit the tourist information center in Georgetown. I normally don’t go to information centers, but the one in Georgetown was fantastic. A staff member gave me maps identifying attractions and restaurants and a sheet with events being held during the week. She provided tips on how to visit sights outside of the city center and information on public transport. It’s a great way to get oriented and plan your visit in Georgetown.

Cameron Highlands and Melaka

While I tried to enjoy Malaysia at a relaxed pace, I took a couple of quick trips in the country. One was a two-night stay in the Cameron Highlands, a hilly region known for tea and strawberries.

To get to the highlands, I took a four-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. I can sleep in almost any moving vehicle, so I was passed out for most of the ride. We drove through winding hills for the last hour. A couple of passengers got sick and had to use the small trash bags that were placed at each seat. I was seated at the front of the bus, so I didn’t witness anything too grisly.

To make the most out of my short stay in the Cameron Highlands, I booked a tour with Discover Camerons. In the morning, our guide Appu picked up our group in a Land Rover and drove us to the BOH tea plantations. The plantations served as a verdant backdrop as we learned about the process of harvesting tea.

boh tea

We then visited the Mossy Forest, where Appu pointed out a couple of tiny, carnivorous pitcher plants.

mossy forest

Insects, beware.

Appu explained the importance of conserving the forest, although he noted that the Malaysian government hasn’t recognized it as a national park. About half of the forest has disappeared over the past five years due to development.

We walked through the Mossy Forest and were treated to views of the highlands.

mossy forest

During our drive out of the forest, Appu noticed a cluster of wild orchids.

mossy forest

We visited the BOH shop, where we could had tea and a light lunch. I tried the Palais Supreme tea, which was delicately flavored. I don’t drink tea often in New York, but I fully enjoyed the tea in the highlands. I also couldn’t get enough of the green hills surrounding the shop.

cameron highlands tea

We visited a butterfly farm in the afternoon. I was amazed by the camouflage of a leaf insect.

leaf insect

Can you tell which one is the insect?

The farm also housed several reptiles, including a cute bamboo snake and lizard.

bamboo snake

One of my new BFFs

IMG_3067

My other new BFF

Another highlight of the tour was a visit to a strawberry farm. You could pay to pick your own strawberries, but I was content with just taking a photo and having a few fresh, already picked strawberries.

cameron highlands strawberries

Cameron Highland strawberries are smaller and sourer than western strawberries. I loved the fresh strawberries, which were juicy, sweet, and a little tart. I also sampled a couple of jams and downed a fantastic strawberry milkshake.

The weather in the Cameron Highlands was wonderful. I had to put on my rain jacket in the morning since I felt a little cold – such a change from sweating through my clothes every day.


My other quick trip was a one-night stay in Melaka, a city in southern Malaysia that’s a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur. Melaka looks more like a European city due to Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences.

I visited Melaka on a Sunday, and it was bustling in both the day and night. One of the main attractions is the appropriately named Red Square, which features a clock tower.

melaka

A river is in the center of town, which provided pleasant scenery for a walk.

melaka

In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese built a fortress called A Famosa, the gate of which is still standing.

a famosa

I also visited the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum, which was located in a house used by one family for four generations. Our tour guide explained that “baba” referred to ethnically Chinese men living in Malaysia, while “nyonya” referred to ethnically Chinese women. The guide was entertaining and helped us envision life in historical Melaka.

baba nyonya heritage museum

Portrait of a Tired Man in the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum

On weekends, there’s a night market on Jonker Street, featuring an assortment of food and souvenirs. I was distracted by the trishaws that were adorned with lights and cartoon characters. The characters included Pokemon (my favorite), Hello Kitty (a close second), the minions from Despicable Me, and Anna and Elsa from Frozen.

melaka trishaw

No, I didn’t ride one of these.

I purposely visited Melaka on a weekend because I wanted to see the Jonker Street night market. Other travelers who visited Melaka on weekdays reported that it was quiet, which might be better if you want a more peaceful experience in the city.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur was my first stop in Malaysia. I didn’t know much about KL before visiting, but the city pleasantly surprised me.

KL might not have as many attractions as other large cities, but diversity is a big part of what makes it appealing. The population largely consists of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Add in expats and travelers, and you have plenty of opportunities for people watching. The diversity extends to clothing, and attire ranges from crop tops and shorts to niqabs.

With a diverse population comes delicious food. My favorite breakfast was roti canai, a flatbread that can have savory or sweet filling. Roti can be eaten with hands and dipped in curry. Banana roti and curry make a weirdly good combination. I usually had roti with teh tarik, or sweet “pulled” tea.

roti canai

Roti with curry and teh tarik

I admit that I hit up a couple of chain restaurants in KL. If it helps, I went to chains that aren’t in New York. I visited Din Tai Fung for their soup dumplings (xiao long bao). I also fondly remembered Nando’s from my semester abroad in Australia, so I had to try their chicken in KL. A Londoner who was a Nando’s aficionado claimed the restaurants in KL weren’t as good as the ones in the UK. I have no idea if he was biased, but the peri-peri sauce was as good as I remembered.

nandos

Of all the food I ate in KL, Nando’s was one of the few that I remembered to take a photo of. Good thing I’m not a food critic.


The Petronas Towers are iconic and for good reason. The rest of the KL skyline isn’t very distinctive, so the towers stand out. They were gorgeous in both the day and night.

petronas towers

petronas towers

Instead of going up the Petronas Towers, I visited the nearby KL Tower based on an expat’s recommendation. It was expensive (admission was 105 MYR or about $24.50), but it was fun to take photos on the sky deck and admire the Petronas Towers.

kl tower

Cheesing on the sky deck at KL Tower


If you want to restock on products from your favorite stores while traveling, you won’t have a problem finding them in KL. I stayed in an area called Bukit Bintang, where there were at least eight malls within a five-minute walk of each other. Stores ranged from luxury to budget-friendly. I didn’t buy anything, but I moonlighted as a mall walker in KL; it was an excuse to remain in an air-conditioned space while still upping my step count. My favorite malls were the Pavilion, located in Bukit Bintang, and Suria KLCC, located by the Petronas Towers. As a bonus, a covered walkway stretched from the Pavilion to Suria KLCC. The walkway was partly air-conditioned and provided shelter from both the sun and KL traffic.

kl pavilion

The Pavilion

At night, there’s a fountain show called “Symphony Lake” next to Suria KLCC. I was expecting to roll my eyes during the show, but I thought it was charming. It was undeniably cheesy, but it was fun to watch kids – and adults – shriek when they were sprayed by water from the fountain. (I swear I’m normally a nice person.) The show changes nightly, so you can visit the fountain multiple times during your stay in KL.

symphony lake


One day, I escaped the city for a jungle and waterfall trekking tour with Open Sky Unlimited. At 6:10 AM, Ben, the guide, picked up our group in an SUV. After driving for an hour, Ben took us to a local “mamak” (a 24-hour restaurant serving Indian food), to have rotis and coffee.

Once we finished breakfast, Ben drove us to the start of our hike. Three adorable dogs eagerly awaited the SUV, and I was happy when they joined us.

open sky unlimited

A couple of our furry hiking companions. Photo credit: Open Sky Unlimited

The hike to the waterfall took about an hour. There were three uphill sections toward the end of the hike, but they weren’t particularly challenging. The jungle was considerably cooler than the city center, so temperatures remained comfortable during the hike. Ben noted there were no mosquitoes in the jungle, a definite plus.

When we reached the waterfalls, the dogs dozed off while we took photos.

kl waterfalls

kl waterfalls

Photo credit: Open Sky Unlimited

The water was frigid but refreshing. We also got to take advantage of a free spa treatment: the pounding water did a great job of massaging our backs. It was a challenge to keep our eyes open in the deluge.

kl waterfalls

Photo credit: Open Sky Unlimited

kl waterfalls

Wiping water from my eyes was a fruitless exercise. Photo credit: Open Sky Unlimited

For lunch, Ben took us to a Chinese restaurant that served the best chicken fried rice. The rice was smoky from the charcoal used to cook it. We also had excellent honey chicken, sweet and sour pork, and Singapore noodles. It was a lot of food, but we managed to wolf it all down.

I highly recommend Open Sky Unlimited. Ben was a stellar guide, and he made sure we navigated both the hike and waterfalls safely. He supplied us with snacks at the waterfalls and took great photos that he sent our group a couple of hours after he dropped us off. Since I only had a large tote bag, Ben provided me with a daypack that was easy to sling on my back.

Ben worked in investment banking for about nine years before quitting to start Open Sky Unlimited with his friend Amos. I didn’t get to meet Amos in person, but I did email him to book the tour. He was prompt in answering my questions and seemed just as professional and friendly as Ben.


Below are other notes about KL:

  • I used KL as a base for my travels in Malaysia, so I was in the city on a few separate occasions. My first visit at the end of June coincided with Eid, the end of Ramadan. Attractions and restaurants in KL were packed during this time. When I went to KL for my second visit in mid-July, everything was noticeably less crowded.
  • It rained almost every evening I was in KL, but it didn’t affect me much. The rain usually lasted for a couple of hours during my break between sightseeing and dinner.
  • Crossing streets in KL is harder than in Vietnam. Cars outnumber motorbikes in KL, and the traffic moves quickly. It can take forever for the stoplights to change at busy intersections, so people often jaywalk. This is scarier than in Vietnam because cars can’t swerve around you as easily as motorbikes can. I was grateful for the underground and elevated walkways that allowed pedestrians to avoid traffic.
  • A couple of travelers asked me for directions in KL. One was a guy from Dubai, while the other was a guy from Africa (he didn’t get more specific than that). Surprisingly, I was able to provide them directions since I had been in KL for a few days at that point. Once a Cornell tour guide, always a tour guide.
  • I met another Cornellian in KL, bringing my total Cornellian count to three for this trip. He was a rising senior doing a summer internship in Jakarta. Current Cornellians are clearly smarter than I was when I was in college. They’re doing things right by doing programs and internships that allow them to travel.
  • KL is very friendly to women looking for cheap drinks. On multiple days per week, a number of bars give free drinks to women for “ladies’ night” specials. Apologies, men.
    • [NB: if it’s any consolation, men should go to Hoi An in Vietnam. It’s the only place I’ve visited where men get drink specials, while women get nothing.]
  • I finally saw Wonder Woman in KL. The movie was fun, and it was nice to do something so “normal” after traveling for a couple of months. The screen showed Malay and Chinese subtitles, which distracted me at first since I’m used to turning on subtitles when I watch movies at home. Later, it became a fun exercise to try to see which Malay words corresponded to the English dialogue.

Thailand recap

Since I previously visited Thailand in 2013, I focused on the southwest on this trip. I arrived in Phuket on June 4 and left on June 25. Below is a summary of the locations, accommodations, transport, and tours from my time in Thailand.

Phuket (June 4 to 7 and 9 to 15)

  • Accommodations:
    • Lub d Phuket Patong. I stayed here twice: I was in a four-bed dorm when I first arrived in Phuket and then stayed in a private room for one night after I finished a sailing course. Lub d is clean and offers unique activities such as muay thai lessons. It also offers great facilities such as coin-op washing machines, a pool, and a lounge with a big-screen TV. It had a restaurant that served good (but expensive) Thai and western food. The hostel is large, so it feels more like a hotel. While the size allowed for more amenities, the hostel also felt a little impersonal, and it was more difficult to meet people.
    • Sita, the boat for my five-day, five-night sailing course with Andaman Yachting.
  • Transport to Phuket:
    • Five-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Vietnam, with a stop at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok.
  • Transport within Phuket:
    • I stayed on Patong Beach and walked around. I didn’t visit other beaches in Phuket due to heavy rain. I ordered cars from Grab to get to the bus station and airport.
  • Tours:
  • Blog posts:

Khao Sok (June 7 to 9)

  • Accommodation: Khao Sok Good View Resort
    • Mr. Bao, the owner of the resort, is the best. He booked a tour for me, answered all my questions, and drove me to the bus stop when I was leaving Khao Sok. My room was clean and had everything I needed. All the rooms have balconies that face the jungle. Wifi was spotty, but I didn’t mind.
  • Transport to Khao Sok:
    • Four-hour bus ride from Phuket. I had no problem buying a ticket when I arrived at the bus station.
  • Transport within Khao Sok:
    • When I arrived in Khao Sok, I walked the half mile from the bus stop to the resort. I took a tour to explore the national park.
  • Tour:
    • Tour of Cheow Lan Lake. Unfortunately, I don’t have more details since Mr. Bao booked the tour, but it was scenic and fun.
  • Blog post:

Krabi (June 15 to 20 and 23 to 25)

  • Accommodations:
    • Slumber Party Hostel (Ao Nang). This is party central, a.k.a. heaven for guests aged 18 to 24. I normally avoid party hostels (I mean, I’m almost 30, so I guess I should be adulting), but I decided to stay here for a couple of nights when I saw the high ratings. During check in, the staff repeatedly remind you that you’re staying at a party hostel…or maybe they did this just for me since I was older than most of the other guests. The bathrooms were surprisingly clean, and the staff was lively. I stayed in a four-bed dorm, which was cramped and had no windows. I really liked my roommates, so the small space wasn’t an issue. If you want more space, the rooms with more bunks were considerably larger, and a couple even had balconies. Wifi existed, but I wasn’t able to load any sites or access any apps. Don’t stay here if you want to sleep peacefully at night. Do stay here if you want an active social scene.
    • Pak-Up Hostel (Krabi Town). This hostel was large, but I still found it charming. It has a school theme, with each room named after a subject (e.g., “History,” “Art,” “P.E.”). The rooms are clean, and each bed has a huge locker. A bar, appropriately named “Playground,” is on the ground floor. It’s easy to play games and meet people at the bar. Each guest can redeem vouchers for two free kebabs every night; it’s not enough for a full meal, but it’s a good snack.
    • Avatar (Railay). Travelers visit Railay to relax, and Avatar is a great spot to do so. My room had a huge bed and a rain shower with good pressure. The pool was pristine, and the resort had a restaurant where they served breakfast. Railay is small, so it’s easy to visit the beaches and sights. Everything was within a ten-minute walk from the resort.
  • Transport to Krabi:
    • On my first visit to Krabi, I took a three-hour bus ride from Phuket to Ao Nang. Again, I had no problem buying a ticket when I arrived at the bus station.
    • On my second visit to Krabi, I took a three-hour minivan ride from Koh Lanta to Krabi Town.
  • Transport within Krabi:
    • Ao Nang, Krabi Town, and Railay are all pretty compact, so I mostly walked. To visit Tiger Cave Temple from Ao Nang, I rode on the back of a motorbike that one of my roommates drove. The motorbike rental cost 240 THB (about $7) for a full day.
    • I took a taxi to get from Ao Nang to Krabi Town, which cost 600 THB (about $18). A longtail boat took me from Krabi Town to Railay, which cost 150 THB (about $4).
  • Blog post:

Koh Lanta (June 20 to 23)

  • Accommodation: Hey Beach Hostel
    • As the name suggests, the hostel is steps away from Khlong Dao Beach. The beach faces west, so you’re treated to fabulous sunsets. The staff was friendly, and we could help ourselves to free tea and coffee. A reggae bar is right next to the hostel, which was a fun place to hang out. The hostel’s common area is open to the elements, so bring plenty of bug spray. The mosquitoes are ruthless.
  • Transport to Koh Lanta:
    • 3.5-hour boat and minivan ride from Railay. The boat took me to a pier called Ao Nam Mao in Krabi, and then I rode a minivan to Koh Lanta.
  • Transport within Koh Lanta:
    • Koh Lanta is large, so you need a vehicle to see the sights. I rode on the back of a motorbike driven by another traveler at my hostel. We were able to rent the motorbike from our hostel, which cost 200 THB for 24 hours. I walked to Long Beach, the beach south of Khlong Dao, which took about an hour one way.
  • Blog post:

Expenses

During my 22 days in Thailand, I spent about $2,173.73, or $98.81 a day. This total includes my flight from Vietnam to Phuket ($169). Almost half of this ($1,055) was for my five-day sailing course. If I hadn’t done the course, I would have spent about $51 a day. I wince when I look at the difference in cost, but I did enjoy the course. I hope this is the only time I spend so much money on a single activity during this trip.

My expenses were categorized as follows:

  • Entertainment: $1,196.40
    • My sailing course consists of about 88% of this category. The rest of the category consists of my tour in Khao Sok, spa treatments (inexpensive massages for the win), a small donation to Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi, and hiring a guide for Tiger Cave in Koh Lanta.
  • Transport: $368.70
    • This includes my flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phuket, taxis, buses, boats, and motorbike rentals. My biggest expense was the flight from Vietnam to Phuket ($169). My second largest expense was a taxi from the Phuket airport to my hostel ($41). This was overpriced, and I accidentally paid an extra $11. I should have gotten a Grab car instead. Bus rides were uneventful and cheap (less than $7).
  • Food: $286.65
    • There are a few reasons why this category is so large: (1) I usually ate in restaurants and didn’t eat much street food; (2) I often got juice with dinner; (3) I caved in and ate western food a few times; and (4) the islands are generally more expensive than mainland Thailand.
    • I experienced slight sticker shock when I first arrived in Phuket. After being used to the cheap prices in Vietnam, I kept raising an eyebrow whenever I had to pay for food in Phuket. Granted, a meal might cost 250 to 350 THB (roughly $6 to 10), which would be reasonable in New York. This was still considerably higher than a meal in Vietnam, which was usually less than $4. I did eat street food at the night market in Krabi Town, which was Vietnam-level cheap (less than $3 for dinner and dessert).
    • I started getting random cravings in Thailand. I usually don’t drink juice (let’s ignore the few months when I was a fan of Juice Generation in New York), but I ordered it regularly in Thailand. I also really wanted pizza, which I got in Koh Lanta. I’m happy to report that Sole Mare served a delicious prosciutto and mushroom pizza. It might not have been a New York slice, but it was still satisfying. I was so happy that I went back the next night. I should be ashamed, but I have no regrets.
  • Accommodation: $261.51
    • I mostly stayed in dorm rooms, but I treated myself to a private room after my sailing course and in Khao Sok. My most expensive accommodation was my room in Khao Sok, which was about $45 a night. My least expensive accommodation was a ten-person dorm in Krabi Town (Pak-Up Hostel), which was about $7 a night.
  • Miscellaneous: $60.47
    • This includes an AIS SIM card (about $31). I wasn’t expecting to pay this much, but this was the only plan available for a month. It included a ridiculous amount of data; 12 GB, if I remember correctly. I had no problem getting service, even while on the boat for my sailing course. The data also came in handy since a few of my accommodations had spotty wifi.
    • I bought an international adapter at the airport in Bangkok since my original one broke. I was annoyed that the original adapter broke so quickly, but I shouldn’t complain since I had gotten it for free.

Finally, below are general observations about Thailand:

  • When I first visited Thailand in 2012, it was common to see photos of King Rama IX at sights and restaurants. He was the longest-serving Thai monarch, so he was enormously important. My tour guide told our group to avoid making any negative comments about the king. King Rama passed away in October 2016, leading to a year of mourning. Billboards and photos of the late king were everywhere. Black (or gray, due to bleaching from the sun) banners were draped in front of public buildings. On my flight to Phuket, an announcement was made to commemorate the late king. I met a Singapore expat who went on business trips to Bangkok after the king’s death. He was told to wear white and black/charcoal gray in meetings due to the period of mourning; no colors allowed.
  • Touts in Thailand – especially in Phuket – are chatty and borderline flirty. They attempt to engage in conversation instead of simply asking, “Taxi?” They usually asked where I was from, how I was doing, or how long I was staying in Thailand.
  • My accommodations in Thailand generally offered more amenities than those in Vietnam, but they were also more expensive. A lot of my accommodations in Thailand didn’t offer free breakfast, while all of the places I stayed at in Vietnam did. I missed the free breakfasts since it was a good way to meet other travelers.
  • 7-Elevens are on every street in Thailand. If you meet a backpacker in Thailand, he or she is likely obsessed with toasties from 7-Eleven. These are sandwiches that cost less than a dollar. They’re good for a light lunch or after a night out. Their magical powers are unleashed once the cashier heats them up. Most people go for the ham and cheese, but I was fond of the fried chicken toastie. These are certainly better than the scary, glistening hot dogs they serve at the 7-Elevens in the U.S.